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The Call of Cthulhu Turns 85: H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos
The short stories of H.P. Lovecraft have always been personal favorites of mine. Ever since I read "The Call of Cthulhu" for the first time as a teenager, I have been hooked on Lovecraft's particular brand of supernatural fiction and the sense of cosmic horror his characters evoke.
February marked the 85th anniversary of the 1928 edition of the pulp magazine Weird Tales in which the "The Call of Cthulhu" first appeared in print.
"The Call of Cthulhu," along with other stories by Lovecraft, provided a nucleus of characters, settings, themes and plot devices that other authors would use in their own works of fiction. This nucleus has since grown into an entire shared universe. Since Lovecraft's death, hundreds of Lovecraft inspired authors have contributed to what is now called "The Cthulhu Mythos."
For those of you who are unfamiliar with story, "The Call of Cthulhu" details the events described in a manuscript left by the late Francis Wayland Thurston. This manuscript tells a tale of horror and intrigue in which Francis stumbles across a mysterious box belonging to his late granduncle, a renowned anthropologist. The box contained his uncle's research into a series of bizarre events surrounding what he called the "Cthulhu Cult." Francis' investigation into his granduncle's findings leads him to discover a horrific correlation of events involving ancient cult rituals, human sacrifice, horrific cosmic entities, strange visions, unknown monstrosities, and an evil winged deity lurking in an ancient city beneath the sea. "The Call of Cthulhu" is one of many tales by Lovecraft that depict a universe in which humans unknowingly exist alongside a variety of unseen deities, monstrosities and supernatural phenomenon. Those inquisitive and unlucky few who manage to catch a glimpse of these cosmic horrors rarely escape with their lives and even less with their sanity.
The term "Cthulhu Mythos" was coined by writer and Lovecraft contemporary, August Derleth. Derleth wrote several works heavily inspired by Lovecraft and used the term to denote tales that utilized Lovecraft's unique pseudo-mythology.
Lovecraft would encourage others to build upon the fictional universes he created. As a result, the Cthulhu Mythos began as the work of a few Lovecraft contemporaries and admirers but has since grown into a shared universe in which hundreds of authors have contributed. Authors use themes, characters, locations, plot devices and stylistic components from Lovecraft's stories to create their own literary works and expand upon Lovecraft's original tales.
Some of these characters, locations and plot devices might be known to those unfamiliar with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. The Necronomicon; a fictional spellbook featured prominently in Lovecraft's tales, has made appearances in several popular works. The Necronomicon was featured as a main plot device of the Evil Dead film series and provided the namesake for H.R. Giger's first major published compendium of images. In fact, several authors have been inspired to attempt to write an actual "Necronomicon."
Lovecraft's fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts was the inspiration for the Arkham Asylum, a fictional asylum for the criminally insane, featured in the DC comics universe. Also, many of you may have seen the three part episode of South Park in which Cthulhu is awoken from his slumber in the depths of R'yleh by a failed attempt to contain the "DP" oil spill.
Furthermore, there have been film adaptations (of varying quality) of a number of Lovecraft tales including "The Call of Cthulhu," "From Beyond," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Dreams in the Witch House" and the humorously gory '80s adaptation of "Herbert West-Reanimator."
Countless musicians have been inspired by Lovecraft. Lovecraft inspired songs include Metallica's "Call of Ktulu" and Black Sabbath's "Behind the Wall of Sleep." Composer Larry Sitsky composed music based on the Lovecraft tale "The Music of Erich Zann."
Lovecraft would often borrow from other author's work as well. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft discusses authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany as having profound influence on his work. "The Dunwich Horror" takes its inspiration from "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen, the vocalization "Tekeli-li" from "At the Mountains of Madness" was taken from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" and the cosmic entity "Tsathoggua" which has been mentioned in several Lovecraft tales, is actually the creation of Lovecraft contemporary and mythos contributor Clark Ashton Smith.
Eighty five years ago, "The Call of Cthulhu" was first published. It would provide the namesake for a mythos in which hundreds of authors have participated and thousands of stories have been written. To this day writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers continue to find inspiration in Lovecraft's unique brand of supernatural fiction. Just like Cthulhu's ability to communicate strange visions to poets and artists, Lovecraft's stories strike a chord in the minds of the artistic.
Despite H.P. Lovecraft's early death at the age of 46, his general reclusiveness, atypical upbringing, fragile constitution and lack of notoriety during his lifetime, his body of work has grown significantly in popularity and influence. Just remember to think "Lovecraft" the next time you happen to catch a rerun of The X-Files or the Twilight Zone in which humanity is depicted as little more than helpless against malign alien influences just waiting for their moment to strike.
Select Bibliography H.P. Lovecraft Titles
Tales (Library of America. 2005) - A collection of Lovecraft's most famous short stories and novellas. This is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the author's work.
Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft (Gollancz. 2008) - A beautiful commemorative edition containing most of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories and novellas including all of his major works.
The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (Dell. 1997) - Several Lovecraft tales of length with annotations.
More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (Dell. 1999) - Several shorter Tales with annotations.
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major Works (Ecco Press. 1997) - A collection of essential Lovecraft tales. A great place to start.
The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (Ballantine Books. 1995) - A collection of stories by Lovecraft that belong to his Dream Cycle. Lovecraft's dream cycle is another major fictional universe in which he commonly set his tales.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Books. 1999) - His most famous short tales.
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Books. 2001) More well known tales including a few of his longer stories.
Xue se chuan shuo (Xin shi jie chu ban she. 2005) - A collection of Lovecraft tales translated into Chinese.
Narrativa Completa / Vol 1 (Valdemar. 2005) - A sizeable collection of Lovecraft's stories translated into Spanish.
El Horror De Dunwich (Libros del Zorro Rojo. 2008) - A spanish translation of The Dunwich Horror
Der Poet des Grauens (Corian-Verlag. 1983) - Contains German translations of several tales, a letter and an essay by Lovecraft in addition to several essays about Lovecraft.
Select Bibliography of Cthulhu Mythos Works
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (Arkham House, 1969) - This is an essential collection of early mythos stories collected by August Derleth. This collection contains tales from early mythos writers beginning with H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" and includes tales by Robert E. Howard (Creator of Conan the Barbarian), Brian Lumley, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth himself. The introduction discussing the Cthulhu Mythos by Derleth makes this collection a great place to start.
New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (Arkham House. 1980) - A collection of cthulhu mythos tales by contemporary authors includes Stephen King, Brian Lumley and Frank Belknap Long.
Cthulhu's Reign (DAW Books. 2010) - A collection of recent mythos tales that take place after "The Call of Cthulhu" and address his return.
The Children of Cthulhu (Ballantine Pub. 2002) - A collection of 21 new tales belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos written by contemporary authors. The introduction discusses the development of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Cthulhu Tales Omnibus: Madness (Boom Studios, 2011) - A collection of short comics based on the cthulhu mythos originally published in single magazine form. Several of these comics are quite humorous including one which features a Lovecraft inspired reality tv house show in which one of the cast members turns into cthulhu and proves to be a formidable contestant.
- In Lovecraft's Shadow: The Cthulhu Mythos Stories of August Derleth (Mycroft & Moran, 1998) - A beautifully illustrated collection of Derleth's Mythos Tales.
- The Trail of Cthulhu (Neville Spearman, 1971)
- The Mask of Cthulhu (Arkham House, 1958)
- The Quest for Cthulhu (Carroll & Graf, 2000) - Contains both The Mask of Cthulhu and The Trail of Cthulhu.
Lairs of the Hidden Gods Series
A four volume collection containing Lovecraft inspired short stories written by Japanese authors. Each volume also contains essays on Lovecraft and his influence. (Kurodahan Press, 2005)
- Night Voices, Night Journeys: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Volume One. Includes a bibliography of works related to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos by Japanese Authors as well as a Cthulhu Mythos Manga list.
- Inverted Kingdom: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Volume Two. Contains an essay on the Cthulhu Mythos in gaming.
- Straight to Darkness: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Volume Three. Contains an essay of the Cthulhu Mythos influence on Heavy Metal music.
- City of the Dreaming God: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Volume Four. Includes an essay on the cthulhu mythos on film with a filmography of cthulhu mythos films.
- The House of Cthulhu (Tor. 2005)
- Haggopian and Other Stories: Best Mythos Tales, Volume 2 (Subterranean Press. 2008) - A collection of Lumley's early Mythos tales. Dedicated to August Derleth.
Critical works, reference materials and collections of essays about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos
A Cthulhu Mythos Bibliography and Concordance (Armitage House, 1999) - Contains more than 2600 works cited by author including short stories, novels, poetry and selected correspondence and a detailed concordance of mythos terms which cite all stories that refer to a given topic. Also include a separate index of titles.
Black Forbidden Things: Cryptical Secrets from the "Crypt of Cthulhu" (Sarmont House. 1992) - Contains essays on Lovecraft related topics.
Lovecraft Studies (Necronomicon Press) - A biannual publication of critical essays and other Lovecraft related material. NYPL has number 26 to number 35.
Colavito, Jason. The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture (Prometheus Books, 2005) Jason Colavito discusses the influence Lovecraft has had on the popular interest in extraterrestrials and ancient aliens.
Joshi, S.T. and David E Schultz. An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia. (Greenwood Press. 2001)
Schnabel, William. Lovecraft: Histoire d'un Gentleman Raciste. (La Clef d'Argent. 2003) - A critical work that discusses Lovecraft's views on race. In French.
Shreffler, Philip A. The H.P. Lovecraft Companion (Greenwood Press. 1977) - Includes a concordance of characters and plot summarys of all Lovecrafts's stories.
Smith, Don G. H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture: The Works and Their Adaptations in Film, Television, Comics, Music and Games. - Provides lists of Lovecraft adaptations in various formats.
Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters (Ohio University Press. 2000) - A collection of Lovecraft's correspondence arranged and edited to form an autobiography of the man. Edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz
Conover, Willis and H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft at Last. (Cooper Square Press. 2002). Originally published in 1975, This biography is composed of correspondence between H. P. Lovecraft and Willis Conover from 1936 -1937. Conover was 12 at the time and provides a candid, informal and warm image of the author during the last years of a his life.
De Camp, L. Sprauge. H.P Lovecraft: A Biography (Doubleday. 1975) - The earliest major independent biography of Lovecraft. Discusses Lovecraft in detail and his highly critical at points.
Long, Frank Belknap - Howard Philip Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside (Arkham House. 1975) - A early biography of Lovecraft written by his longtime friend Frank Belknap Long.
Items of Interest in NYPL Special Collections
Beyond the Wall of Sleep (Wolfgang Buchta. 2007) - In NYPL's Spencer Collection Illustrated, designed and printed by Wolfgang Buchta. The text is from Arkham House Publisher's edition of Lovecraft's short story and reproducted from Buchta's hand lettering.